Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1996 (4.3)

Molla Nasraddin - The Magazine
Laughter that Pricked the Conscience of a Nation

by Jala Garibova

Jalil Mammadguluzade (1866-1932), Editor of "Molla Nasraddin," which was published for 25 years (1906-1931).

Azerbaijanis say, "The tip of the pen, power of the sword," to express the authority and persuasiveness of the written word. It's a perfect description for "Molla Nasraddin," the eight-page weekly, which became one of the most influential publications in the history of Azerbaijan and which had a profound effect on shaping intellectual thought and movement of the early 20th century. Even today its impact is still felt in the region-especially in the Caucasus, Turkey, and Iran.

The journal takes its name, "Molla Nasraddin," from the eastern folklore sage of the same name, who was believed to have been a real person. Molla's satiric jokes had been circulating and entertaining folk in the region since the 13th century (see "Molla Nasreddin, Comic Sage of the Ages."

Somehow the publication, "Molla Nasraddin" managed to stay in print over a span of 25 years (1906-1931) despite the turbulent political period wrought by the Revolution of 1905, World War I, the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan of 1918-1920, and the Soviet takeover of Azerbaijan in 1920.


Above: Left: The Magazine, "Molla Nasraddin" marks the adoption of the new alphabet in Azerbaijan from Arabic to Latin, which occurred in 1929. Right: Poking fun at the complicated Arabic script which had confused everybody.

The editor of "Molla Nasraddin," Jalil Mammadguluzade (1866-1932), and his staff of cartoonists, writers, and poets did battle with every major social and political issue of their time. Unfortunately, many of the problems they identified 80-90 years ago still exist.

In one of the earliest issues (1906), Molla Nasraddin is quoted as saying, "When you pick up any (Muslim) newspaper, you can see only the following: Fine fellow is such and such khan, such and such Haji, such and such creature. But they never write about the groans of thousands of starving Moslems and thousands of rubles being spent on the feasts, funeral banquets, and presents for their mistresses. I'm sick and tired of these words." (Molla Nasraddin, 1906, volume 4).

The magazine played on certain themes over and over. These included: (1) the precarious geographic location of Azerbaijan as a buffer between Russia and Iran; (2) the colonialist attitudes of Persian shahs and Russian tzars towards Azerbaijan; (3) the disdainful attitude of the intelligentsia towards anything "Azerbaijani" whether related to culture, the education system, or language; (4) the abusive treatment of women in a male-dominated society; (5) the lack of safety, health and financial well-being for the average worker and citizen; (6) the hypocrisy of fanatic clergy; (7) the corruption and abusiveness of people in high positions; (8) the ignorance and naiveté which made people vulnerable to being cheated and abused by all of these social ills because they refused to become educated; and finally (9) advocacy for an alphabet that would foster literacy. [Finally, in 1929, the Arabic script was replaced by a modified Latin alphabet].

Like a fearless dragon slayer, the magazine went on a rampage to rout these evils from society using humor to make their point through cartoons, letters to the editor, want ads, anecdotes, stories and news items. A few samples follow:

Irresponsibility of the Press Snobbery of the Intelligentsia
The magazine especially attacked the snobbery and egoism of "the so-called intelligentsia" who were so much involved with the Russian language and culture that they considered it shameful to speak Turkic.

Molla Nasraddin writes, "Now, I have completed my speech and I have only one apology. Please excuse me, my Turk brothers, that I addressed you in Azerbaijani (or "Turk" as it was called in those days). I know it's shameful and indicates a person's lack of knowledge. But sometimes, it wouldn't be so bad, would it, to recollect the old days, when your mother, swinging your cradle, used to sing lullabies in your mother language?"

Another example of the lack of attention to the Azerbaijani language was found in a "want-ad" announcement: "Where is it possible to find a textbook to educate a child in Turk?"

Wasted Leisure
Molla Nasreddin observed that the main reason why people were so ignorant and naive was that they didn't get involved with endeavors like reading and studying because they considered them to be a waste of time.

One of the articles satirizes a scene Molla passed every day as he walked through the city: "Every evening when I take a stroll and see my fellow countrymen, my heart swells up with pride. I see how much they enjoy themselves in the 'Governor's Park' [where Philharmonic stands today], each having his arm around one of the coiffured Russian ladies. I really feel proud because, thank God, they are so advanced. No nation in the world enjoys themselves more than we Azerbaijanis do. Sometimes you see these stupid Russians, Armenians, Polish and others sitting on a bench, squinting their eyes to read a 'Baku' or 'Caspian' newspaper, or talking about politics. What a headache!"

"Molla Nasraddin" severely attacked people who prevented their children, especially girls, from attending school. "Why should a girl attend school?" Molla asks. "The only thing a girl should learn is how to cook and how to put her mother-in-law and father-in-law in their places when necessary."

Education at madrases (religious schools) was strongly criticized as children had to learn phrases by heart in the Arabic language, without having a clue as to their meaning.

Women's Rights
The rights of women were among the staff's greatest concerns. They were continuously writing about the conditions that kept women ignorant, especially since women fostered the main care and nurture of children. Rarely did women get the chance to go out and gain exposure to new ideas. Most were illiterate; few had opportunities to receive formal education. They lived in a dark world shrouded from head to toe in black chadors. While men were involved with gambling and having affairs with attractive, Western-dressed Russian women, Azerbaijani wives stayed at home, slaving at housework and caring for children.

The magazine published a "Guide for the Families When There is a Pregnant Woman" which satirizes the lack of esteem held for women. One article reads, "In case the pregnant woman has forgotten to put salt in the dizzy [a soup made of lamb meat, potatoes and garbanzo beans], the husband should not kick her out of the house or throw his shoe after her. The wife could stumble and fall down and then lose the baby. To hell with the wife, but why lose the baby? It may be a boy!"

Azerbaijan International (4.3) Autumn 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.

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